Lost in translation

I have lived in a number of houses with my bipeds and I’ve stayed with them in quite a few more on holiday. This meant that this time when we moved I knew that the rules stay the same and they’ll use the same old words like “kitchen”, “upstairs” and “garden” to mean completely different places from before. They may have a similar function to the places that were previously called those names, but it seems lazy and quite confusing to use the same words again!

I have noticed that humans think they are very clever at communication – yet they expect animals to learn to understand what they say. We try to understand you and interpret what you say, but I’ll start with a simple example to show you why things sometimes get confusing.

“Sit” is generally the first command that a puppy learns. The usual method is to move a treat above a puppy’s head so that the puppy naturally lowers his haunches to make it easier to raise his head to get the treat. Then the word “sit” is repeated with this action. The biped then usually thinks that the puppy understands that “sit” means the puppy should get into a sitting position, regardless of the location or circumstances.

Sitting pretty

Sitting pretty

Attribution: By Tim Dobbelaere from Ieper, Belgium (Man’s best friend) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The puppy, however, probably thinks that “sit” means something like “you are incredibly cute, we are in a safe place, I’m in a good mood, touch the floor with your tail while I give you a treat”. This will often cause confusion if the puppy is lying down and is asked to sit. The puppy doesn’t know what to do – his tail is already on the floor. The biped often does not understand why the puppy is confused – it seems so straightforward to the biped that the puppy should raise his front end.

We have one command that bipeds consider basic and already it means two different things – lower your haunches, or raise your front end – depending on the circumstances. And that’s before the puppy has even left the house! Once we venture out in the world, communication becomes even more complicated. How is a puppy to know that now “sit” means “however excited you are, stop moving around sniffing that wonderful smell you’ve discovered and bend your back legs”?

Sometimes it can mean “stop walking, lower your haunches and wait quietly while I speak to another biped”, or “stop walking, park your bottom on the pavement and wait until I decide to cross the road”. There are almost endless variations. I thought I had discovered them all, when I discovered that it can also mean “stop following those goats and put your bottom on the ground and wait for me to catch up with you”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one that lives with humans who has noticed that they don’t always communicate effectively. Do your bipeds give a command that can mean different things?

See you next Wednesday!